I had never been to a "disaster" site as such until a couple of days back...and the experience was really something I can't put words to. I'll try my best in this entry though.
When we reached Pondy on Pongal day, we were asked to head towards Thirukadiyur as that was where we'd be most useful. It was a 3 hour ride through Cuddalore, Chidambaram & Sirkazhi. Our tempo driver happily jumped a signal and there was this Pondy traffic cop who wanted to make a quick buck. He demanded to see our "Pondicherry Permit" (even though the tempo had an All India Permit) and went onto say they had imposed a fine of Rs.4000 on tsunami relief work transport vehicles without the "Pondiherry Permit". I left to get a permit copy from the driver, when I think the cop realised that we're not calling his bluff and suddenly waved us away. Such suckers exist, when the Governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have waived taxes on yellow board vehicles crossing the border for relief work.
Aid-India has setup a Relief Co-Ordination Center in Thirukadiyur, along with a couple of other NGOs like DYFI (the student wing of the CPI(M), SFI, AIDWA, PSF and the TNSF at the CPI(M) party office. The Nagapattinam belt is apparently very pro-communist.
Nagapattinam is about 46 Kms from Thirukadiyur, which gives you a pretty good approximation on how close these areas are to the heavily affected ones. Thirukadiyur town itself is untouched, as it is about 5-6 Kms away from the coastline. But there are quite a good number of villages (mostly fishing) all along the coast, and they're the ones who've faced the brunt of the tsunami.
I'm not going to put down my experiences in detail, if you really like to know, I'll tell you when we meet up sometime. In short - temporary toilets, brick making, negotiations to get the villagers back to fishing, swimming to show the waters are safe, actually fishing, disinfecting water-bodies, talking to families, lots of walking, damage survey, translating etc etc.
The following are my observations/ideas based on what I've seen in the field (in no specific order). The Govt refers to the TN govt, unless mentioned otherwise.
- Immediate needs of food + clothing has been taken care of. The government has distributed about 60 Kgs of Rice + Rs. 4000 in cash per household and there are a number of aid organisations doling out food/biscuits etc every now and then.
- The Govt has designated "Relief Officers" for each group of (5 or more) affected areas. This person is usually an IAS officer and the one we interacted with was extremely helpful, friendly, open to suggestions and keeping tabs on work going on.
- They have also almost completed temporary shelter arrangements in all affected areas, using a bamboo framework and a fire-resistant, bitumen coated sheet for the roof and walls. Each shelter can house approximately 24 families.
- They have also restored electricity to most of the places, and drinking water as well, as the hand-pumps and ground water are too saline for drinking purposes.
- There are no major health hazards as of now in these areas. There are medical teams that visit (govt and private) but they usually just camp in one place and hence the villagers aren't able to reap the full benefits of the same, as people don't know the team is present.
- Relief material is usually stacked up in the village godown/temple/some storage place on orders from the panchayat. Why? Coz if they don't have enough for the whole village, no one gets anything. Dumb, useless village logic. So my advise is if you're giving in kind, find out information on how many families are there in the village, get enough for all and then head out, or it will NOT be distributed. Perumalpettai turned down an offer for 40 new boats since the village had 80 boats pre-tsunami. They said give all or give nothing. This attitude is prevalent all over.
- ALL the survivors in all areas need to be educated on what a tsunami actually is. They can't differentiate between a cyclone and a tsunami and they're all afraid of anything to do with the sea. This needs to be done preferably using pictures/videos and in the local language. Since most of the villagers interact with the sea, they show interest when told about tsunamis.
- If you're a big company and still want to do something, think in kind. Its not about donating 5 crores to the PM's Relief Fund out of which you really don't know how much will be properly used. Adopt a village. Get them what they need. Boats, Engines, Nets. They all want to go back to fishing, help them do it. Help reconstruct houses. Stop feeding the politician pigs. If you're planning on adopting a village, please keep the District Collector/Relief Commisioner informed of the same. They can then divert resources to other places that need them.
- There are other nearby non-affected villages trying to make hay while the sun shines. Beware.
- One Mr. Peter (from Down Under) is in a village called Perumalpettai, helping repair damaged Diesel engines. You could give him a hand, or if you know your way around engines, head over to another village and help. You could also train the local youth, so they can fix minor repairs themselves.
- Whatever you're doing for the village, please get the consent of the panchayat. We're only ephemereal in these people's lives, we don't want to mess it up big time.
- Have lots of patience, and try to be a part of a team. What you see/do (even speaking with families there) does have an effect on you. When working as a team, that effect isn't felt real hard, as you share experiences etc. Relief/Rehab work is NOT easy and you're bound to be disheartened by what you see first.
- Don't overwork yourself, take adequate rest and most important of all, keep hydrated.
Its a little late, but Happy Republic Day!